Copy-rights… and -wrongs

A long while back now, Daniel Dib and I put together a collection of blog posts and new material, and released the collection as Unintended Features. Yes, this little book needs a serious update with more recent material, but … Anyway, after setting things up so you could purchase electronic copies on Amazon, things went well for a while.

Until Amazon decided I had violated the copyright on the material published on our blogs by republishing some of the same material in a book form. It’s not that anyone actually investigated if the copyright holders on the material were the same people, it was just assumed that the same material being in two different places at the same time must be a copyright violation. After I received the first take-down notification, I patiently wrote an explanation of the situation, and the book was restored. I received another take-down notice a week or so later, to which I also responded. And another a week or so after that, then two more on a single day a bit later, finally receiving a dozen or so on one day a month or two after receiving the initial notice.

At this point, I gave up. Unintended Features is no longer available on Amazon, though it is still available here.

What brought this to mind is this—I received another take-down notice today, this time for violating the copyright on a set of slides I shared on Slideshare. Specifically, an old set of slides for a presentation called How the Internet Really Works. It might be useful to recount some of the history of this presentation to give a sense of the situation.

When I worked for Verisign Labs, I was asked to create a set of slides that could be used to explain the importance of the DNS and generally how the Internet really works for various uses. I built the slide set, used it a couple of times, and then kind-of put it on the back shelf. After some time, I doubled the length of the presentation and gave it at conference. Some other folks, most notably Alvaro Retana, used a modified set of slides based on the originals to present in several places. Since then, I’ve created several versions of these slides, mostly a half an hour to an hour in length. I have the original version I developed at Verisign sitting around, as well as a version I developed while at E///, and versions I developed for several conferences.

Most recently, I’ve developed a three hour version which I present every six months or so as a live webinar over on Safari Books Online through Pearson. I update this version regularly (every six months, in fact), to account for feedback from past presentations of this material, new developments, etc. It has become packed enough that I will probably need to make this a four hour webinar in the next iteration. The quantity of information is so different that these two versions of this presentation are only related in their general outline and some common slides.

What is odd, to me, is that someone, or some system, has apparently flagged that older one hour version of the presentation as a copyright violation against some later recording. I’m being called out for copyright infringement against material I originally developed, and many people have picked up on and used in a lot of different places. This shorter version of the presentation, or ones similar to it, have been recorded and presented many different times, by different people; I doubt the concept of “copyright” against the slides (as opposed to some specific recording) holds much water. Yes, there is a difference between copyrighting a recording of a presentation and the slides used in the presentation. They are two separate works, and you can intentionally maintain the copyright on one while not maintaining the copyright on the other.

As a content creator, I’m all for copyright and protecting copyright. But in this case, there is no copyright violation I can figure out. And yet, there is no way for me to effectively argue against this sort of take-down notice. I can respond, but there is more than one notice—they are already piling up in my inbox, threatening me with legal action if I do not remove this set of slides. Each notice will require some amount of my time, and once these notices begin, experience tells me they will not end. Instead, they will pile up like that woeful pile of paper sitting in the corner of that little table that I really need to get around to looking at, but probably never will.

What I’m going to do, at this point, is pull all my presentations off Slideshare—there’s no point in using a system that won’t tell me who has complained, nor give me any real way to address the issue with a permanent solution. Most of the presentations I have uploaded there are really old anyway. Instead, I will probably upload some shorter presentations I’ve used in a lot of places over the years here on for folks to use for reference and to draw from for their own presentations.

But I’m not going to argue with an automated system that does not, will not, understand what is actually going on. Automating poorly thought-out systems almost never produces a good result. Taking shortcuts in the way things should work because the shortcut is easier to automate is always a bad idea. A fool with a tool is just a faster fool.

I don’t know when we are going to learn these lessons, but they are worth learning.


  1. Olivier Cahagne on 4 November 2019 at 5:25 am

    Hello, I work for AWS, although I’m no lawyer or not into books, I’ m happy to investigate the Amazon side of things regarding your book. I’ve done this extra step for another author recently. No promises but if I can help, I’d be happy to do so (being a fan of your podcast ^^)

  2. Random Short Take #25 | on 6 November 2019 at 2:00 pm

    […] This article by Russ on copyright and what happens when bots go wild made for some fascinating reading. […]